Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Pink Panther 2: Pale pink

The Pink Panther 2 (2009) • View trailer for The Pink Panther 2
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for cartoonish violence and mild vulgarity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 2.5.09
Buy DVD: The Pink Panther 2 • Buy Blu-Ray: The Pink Panther 2 [Blu-ray]

Following a theatrical run that stalled after two months in the spring of 2006, Steve Martin’s first stab at updating The Pink Panther tallied a rather unspectacular $82.2 million in the United States ... against an estimated cost of $80 million.

Hardly a result likely to make any reasonably savvy studio exec jump for joy.
The dim-witted Inspector Clouseau (Steve Martin, far right), believing that he
has "sol-vedd the case," attempts to apprehend the villain with a customary
lack of restraint; Clouseau's fellow detectives — from left, Pepperidge (Alfred
Molina), Vicenzo (Andy Garcia) and Kenji (Yuki Matsuzaki) — watch
helplessly and hope for the best. As do the rest of us...

Why, then, are we suffering through a sequel?

But yes indeed, Martin’s bumbling Inspector Clouseau is back on the case, this time in alliance with a “dream team” of detectives from various countries, all anxious to apprehend a criminal mastermind who has been stealing the world’s most priceless treasures.

It’s perhaps fair to admit that director Harald Zwart’s film is no worse than its predecessor, which was helmed by other hands; Zwart’s efforts on 2003’s Agent Cody Banks probably gave him all the experience he needed to stage-manage a similarly broad farce involving France’s most notoriously incompetent cop.

Besides, one rather doubts that Zwart controlled his star to any degree; this is Martin’s show — he also shares scripting credit with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber — and he obviously wanted another crack at the character made much more famous by Peter Sellers, whose similarly slapstick antics were overseen by a far better filmmaker (Blake Edwards).

The trouble is, Pink Panther 2 also isn’t any better than Martin’s debut shot at this property. Sure, the family-friendly PG rating is valid; nothing here will annoy or offend, and younger viewers will adore the way Martin slams through — and gets slammed by — people, vehicles, buildings and assorted bits of stagecraft. This is elementary destruction-derby filmmaker: the broader the better.

For the old-timers in the audience, think Laurel and Hardy, but with a much bigger budget.

The frustrating part, though, is that at times this film hovers at the outer fringes of being better. Zwart and Martin simply don’t know when to let a potentially great gag exit the stage gracefully; they always push it three steps further, to the point of eye-rolling tedium.

When Clouseau insists on selecting a bottle of wine to match his dinner at a fancy restaurant, for example, the resulting chaos is brilliant: The large wine rack slowly tips, releasing bottle after bottle, which Martin adroitly fields and hurls to helpful waiters and patrons. It’s about a minute of impressively choreographed physical comedy. But then the gag’s giddy delights face, when Clouseau subsequent burns down the restaurant.

That’s not the icing on the cake; it’s a soufflé suddenly gone flat. And it happens again and again in this film.

Granted, everybody in the cast seems to be having a great time, and Martin had no trouble gathering A-list co-stars. Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina and Yuki Matsuzaki get progressively more exasperated as, respectively, detective colleagues Vicenzo, Pepperidge and Kenji. (The always suave Garcia gets an “A” for effort; his sidelong glances are wonderful.)

John Cleese pops up as Clouseau’s long-suffering boss, Dreyfus (replacing Kevin Kline); Jean Reno returns as Ponton, Clouseau’s partner, and one of the few people who believes the klutzy French cop to be competent. Sometimes.

Emily Mortimer similarly returns as Nicole, Clouseau’s secretary; the continuing gag here is that both adore each other, but are afraid to admit as much. Mortimer’s mousy, plain-Jane performance actually makes an impression amidst so many over-the-top performances; she gets us to genuinely care for poor, neglected Nicole.

Jeremy Irons snarls his way through a brief turn as an aristocratic fence — who may or may not be the criminal mastermind — while Lily Tomlin pops up as a police department bureaucrat charged with instructing Clouseau in the finer points of political correctness and proper public behavior (another premise with great potential but disappointing execution).

Finally, incandescent Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai Bachchan sparkles her way through a luxurious turn as Sonia, an author and researcher whose book on the same criminal mastermind’s past career helps the “dream team” anticipate their adversary’s next move. Bachchan’s sex-kittenish role is designed to palpitate Clouseau’s libido, a task the actress accomplishes with both ease and obvious relish. (No doubt Tomlin’s Mrs. Berenger would frown on such a display.)

The episodic script exists mostly to give Martin ample opportunity to make a fool of himself, a task at which he excels. Occasionally, though, some genuine wit escapes from the physical carnage. An early scene with Cleese, as Clouseau explains how he knew Dreyfus’ office was bugged, is quite funny: good staging by Zwart, excellent comic timing by both stars.

Similarly, Clouseau’s irreverent treatment of the Pope builds well and climaxes with a hilarious finish: one of the few times a physical gag doesn’t self-destruct.

On the other hand, a shampoo-filled evening of “single guy good times” between Clouseau and Ponton is excruciatingly awful: pointless and desperate, with both Martin and Reno struggling for laughs that ain’t gonna come. A karate skirmish between Clouseau and Ponton’s two young sons also is tediously clumsy, and that’s a particular shame. Zwart & Co. obviously are trying for the laughs generated by the lunatic stealthy “battles” between Sellers’ Clouseau and Burt Kwouk’s manservant Cato in the many earlier films, but they miss by a mile.

Things are pretty sad when the best part of a film is its opening animated credits. Granted, the credits always have been a highlight of the Pink Panther series, but rarely would I have preferred, in hindsight, to have exited the theater immediately after Henry Mancini’s iconic main title theme hit its final explosive note.

In this case, though, I’d rather have done something else with those 92 minutes of my life.

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